Memories of my Grandparents
John Calvin (JC) Stearns and Mellie Rose Penrod Stearns and Their Children and Grandchildren By Mellie Ceil Stearns DeYoung
John Calvin Stearns and Mellie Rose Penrod Stearns
Somewhere in a book about the history of Southern Illinois that once was shelved in the Southern Illinois University Library it says that John Stearns put the first steam engine in Southern Illinois. I do not remember if that was John Dump or John Calvin but I asked Dad (Andrew Stearns) about it and he remembered that steam engine. It might have been the old steam John Deer tractor that I remember from those days in the log cabin in Cove Hollow, but I don’t know if it was or not. I do remember when I was grown up and ask Dad about this historical steam engine. He said it had to be level to work right. He claimed that he was good at getting it level. Some would get out there with their levels and fuss with it while he just eyeballed it, according to him. I loved that old John Deer though. I remember Dad opening the steam cocks and how about every third putt it would pop. I remember it had this long belt (about twice as long as the tractor) and about a foot wide that connected to a saw (mill) that would cut trimmed trees into boards. I don’t know what else it did because I was only three at the time.
My earliest memories of Grandpa John Calvin, and Mellie Rose Stearns were during that time we lived in that little log cabin in Cove Hollow and that old steam John Deer tractor was around. Grandpa and Grandma lived up the big hill to the west of us. There were always a lot of people in their two story house. One reason for this was that five of grandmother’s twelve (minus the two that died, Esther Coleen and Ray Wilbur) half of them were still at home when I came along. That would be Gertrude, Julie, Jim, Edna and Ruth. Besides that a lot of the time when we were there Dad’s sister Claudine and Uncle Ogle was there with my cousin Dolly who was about a year older than me. Sometimes Dad’s brother Uncle Lorne and Aunt Mae were there with Charles David who was also about a year older than me. My Dad was Andrew Stearns the first of Grandmother Mellie Stearns’ children.
When we grandchildren were very young two or three years-old grandpa would bounce us on his knee while singing, “Trot a little horsy down to town, careful little horsy don’t fall down.” He would drop his leg out and let us slide down. I remember that Grandpa JC always had a mustache. There is a story that he shaved it off once and the children didn’t recognize him and cried because there was this strange man sitting in his chair, so he had to let it grow back.
Grandmother as far back as I can remember always had a braid on her head. I do not remember for sure if she always wore it across the top of her head or if in the early days she wore it in a bun in back of her head. I apparently had some idea of what a bun was because when my sister Annis Jane Stearns was born Aunt Gertrude came over to help out. I was about five at the time. I don’t remember when Harold Lewis was born because I was only two I guess. He must have been born in that old log cabin also because we didn’t move until I was five and Annis was born just before my birthday in October. I don’t remember them waking Harold up that night, but I remember the next day he was jealous of the baby. He would pat her head and say pretty baby while with the other hand he pinched her.
They woke me up to tell me I had a little sister. So I went out to the living room where they had moved Mom and Dad’s big bed. Aunt Edna and some others had come over a day or two before and moved it out of their tiny bedroom. That house had two bedrooms on opposite sides of the living room. All four rooms were the same size, big enough for a full size bed and just enough extra room to open and close the bedroom door.
Along with Doctor Tweedy, Aunt Gertrude was there (She would have been about 21 at that time) and I think Aunt Hazle (Dad’s step brother Uncle Laten’s wife) was there. My Mom was Virginia Lee Stearns. She sometimes got mail for Uncle Jack’s wife who was also Virginia Stearns.
So after I oohed and gooed at the new baby for a while, I think they wanted to get rid of me so Doctor Tweedy could do his doctor thing. Aunt Gertrude said, “Come on let’s go out to the kitchen.” I always asked why and it drove my mom nuts but Aunt Gertrude said, “To find something to eat.” (Why else would we go to the kitchen I guess) So I got the idea the food was for the baby. She kept me busy looking until she got the all clear signal. I came back with a biscuit for the baby. But Dad said the baby couldn’t eat it right then.
Aunt Hazle and the Doctor left but Aunt Gertie stayed and cooked and cleaned for us for a few days. I found her sitting down one day and declared that I would put her hair in a bun. I’m thinking at that time Grandma wrapped her hair in a bun because I definitely had some idea how it was done. I don’t ever recall my mother wearing a bun. She would make a roll at the nap of her neck or behind her ears but not a bun. So I combed and twisted and stuck bobby pins in Aunt Gertie’s hair. When I was done she felt of the back of her head and commented that she didn’t have enough hair for a bun. “That’s why I made it a biscuit.” I said.
Later when I was older, maybe nine or ten, I remember sitting with Grandmother in the swing on the front porch while she took the braids out and combed them, and then braided it and up again. At that time she did wear them over the top of her head just as when this picture was taken.
I found out that she did not comb her hair every day as she insisted that I do.( She always wanted me to have my hair in braids so it wouldn’t be in my eyes.) She combed her hair every other day she said. Many years later after I was married, I’m thinking it was around 1966 or later. At that time she lived on the other side of the tracks near Lantana Baptist Church in Carbondale so it was well after Grandpa died. She started having bad headaches. The Doctor told her it was from the weight of those braids. He wanted her to cut her hair. She had wore her hair up in braids all her life and it was hard for her to give them up. She didn’t pile it on her head anymore but wore it in one braid down
her back. The headaches were still bad, but she wouldn’t cut her hair. One day Aunt Julie was there, and came up behind her as she sat in her rocking chair and chopped the braid off with a pair of scissors. I still have the braid downstairs in Great Grandpa Frank Penrod’s old trunk.
Speaking of Great Grandpa Penrod, if I ever get to heaven, after I’ve visited with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and my Heavenly Father I want to talk with Great Grandpa. I’m sure he’ll be there. I’ve asked a lot of questions about him and it is the look people who knew him get on their faces when I say his name that intrigues me the most. It’s a look of awe and reverence. Dad said his Grandpa Penrod loved to talk about the scriptures, and when he prayed the room moved. I take that to mean that you could feel the Spirit really strong. I’m pretty sure that he did love his scriptures because in that old trunk is a small notebook and on every page is list and list of scriptures. Dad said he was actually kicked out of – was it Dutch Ridge Church? So that’s where the strong headed rebel in me comes from and Grandma too. She and the kids went out to Dutch Ridge one cold snowy day for church. Either no one came or the preacher sent them home because it was too cold. Somehow Grandma and the preacher got into a long discussion about Matthew 5:28 that says, “whoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” I guess Grandmother thought the scripture meant just what it said and the preacher was willing to give us a little lee way.
Despite all of that I recall a story about how the “boys” I’m not sure who that was, but her boys and neighbors or cousins would play cards in the barn or maybe in the shed across the road from the barn I don’t recall which. If you were going to play cards in her house it had to be Old Maid, but this wasn’t Old Maid. Anyway the preacher came one day because he had heard about the boys playing cards and she told him, “Well, at least I know where they are.”
Grandpa grew watermelons, the best around I’m told. There are stories about the “boys” getting into his watermelons and his “friendly” war with them. Uncle Walter once complained that he never did get enough of Johnny’s watermelons. One day Grandpa decided to let him get his fill. Uncle Walter didn’t feel too good the next day and was seen on the path to the outhouse an unusual number of times. Poor Uncle Walter.
Grandpa loved to play baseball or horseshoes with the “kids,” I wasn’t there but they say that the day before he died he got outside and played with the kids. It was the first Sunday in March of 1954 and I was a sophomore in high school at Alto Pass. They lived in the house at Oak Grove Heights in Carbondale at the time. Grandpa had gone to Doctors Hospital I’m not sure what the diagnoses was, but he put his clothes on and walked out of the hospital on Saturday night. The next day being Sunday, he could not help but go out and play ball with the kids. That was probably Uncle Jack’s kids I’m guessing because he lived close. He passed away on Monday, March 4, 1954. The cause of death was a strangulated hernia. I remember Grandmother was just in shock. She had this stunned look on her face and sat like a sack of flour. She had to have the help of two people to walk. I was afraid she would die as well. Somehow, she pulled herself together and went on.
That summer we moved from the old Tripp house (RR# 4 Carbondale then, Paradise Lane, now) to the log cabin near Hugh Stearns’ at Boskeydell because Dad was working at the Stearns Locker plant in Boskeydell. I started high school at Carbondale as a junior that fall and would spend the week with Grandma at her house on College Street in Carbondale and come home on the weekend. I stayed with her all the time when I went to SIU and seldom went home. We talked a lot during that time and I got to know her. Dolly stayed there a lot too. I called her house Grand Central Station because a lot of different people from different walks of life were in her house every day.
She had married Grandpa when she was sixteen and he was thirty-six. When he died she was only about sixty. I don’t know who, (she wouldn’t tell me) but apparently someone, or several some ones asked her to marry and she flat out refused. She wanted to save herself clean and pure for her Johnny when she got to Heaven. Grandma truly loved her Johnny. Some people were just married and lived in the same house, but I could tell that Grandpa and Grandma truly loved each other. I don’t even know how to explain that, but it made an impression on me. I wanted that same spark, that respect and kindness that was between them when I got married. What better legacy could a couple leave their children and grandchildren? I do not want to give the impression that they were lovey-dovey. They weren’t. They had their disagreements most of it over politics. Grandpa was a dyed in the wool Democrat and Grandma a Republican and they had strong disagreements on that subject. Like I said, I have no idea how to explain what they had that I thought was so special.
She died 14 August 1969. I think I was probably living in Morton, Illinois at that time. I do remember that at her funeral was the first and only time I had ever been ashamed of being named after her. Not because of her, but because I felt that I could never live up to the great lady she had been.
She was so different than her sisters Lizzy and Hester. She was just plain and simple. No fancy hairdo, but with her hair pulled back in braids out of the way, she was a hard worker, strong willed, and humble. Her dishes were chipped but she always set a plate for whoever walked in the door at dinner time. She didn’t wear furs, or fancy rings, but she cared about people and shared what she could.
And yet there was elegance about her.
I loved my Grandmother and her Johnny.